Chapter XIX. Rachel's Champion
 

The immediate ordeal proved less trying than Langholm was prepared to find it. His vivid imagination had pictured the long table, laid for six-and-twenty, with four persons huddled at one end; but the telegrams had come in time to have the table reduced to its normal size, and Langholm found a place set for him between Mrs. Woodgate and Mrs. Steel. He was only embarrassed when Rachel rose and looked him in the eyes before holding out her hand.

"Have you heard?" she asked him, in a voice as cold as her marble face, but similarly redeemed and animated by its delicate and distant scorn.

"Yes," answered Langholm, sadly; "yes, I have heard."

"And yet--"

He interrupted her in another tone.

"I know what you are going to say! I give you warning, Mrs. Steel, I won't listen to it. No 'and yets' for me; remember the belief I had, long before I knew anything at all! It ought not to be a whit stronger for what I guessed yesterday for myself, and what your husband has this minute confirmed. Yet it is, if possible, ten thousand times stronger and more sure!"

"I do remember," said Rachel, slowly; "and, in my turn, I believe what you say."

But her face did not alter as she took his hand; her own was so cold that he looked at her in alarm; and the whole woman seemed turned to stone. Yet the dinner went on without further hitch; it might have been the very smallest and homeliest affair, to which only these guests had been invited. Indeed, the menu had been reduced, like the table, by the unerring tact of Rachel's husband, so that there was no undue memorial to the missing one-and-twenty, and the whole ordeal was curtailed.

There was, on the other hand, no blinking what had happened, no pretence of ignoring the one subject which was in everybody's thoughts. Thus Mrs. Woodgate exclaimed aloud, what she was thinking to herself, that she would never speak to Mrs. Venables again in all her life, and her husband told her across the table that she had better not. Rachel thereupon put in her word, to the effect that the Woodgates would cut themselves off from everybody if they made enemies of all who disbelieved in her, and she could not allow them to do anything of the kind. Steel, again, speculated upon the probable behavior of the Uniackes and the Invernesses, neither of these distinguished families having been invited to the dinner, for obvious reasons arising from their still recent return to the country. There was no effort to ignore the absorbing topic before the butler and his satellites, but the line was drawn in the right place, excluding as it did any reference to the rout of Mrs. Venables, and indeed all details whatsoever.

The butler, however, and in a less degree the footman, presented a rather interesting study during the course of this momentous meal, had the professional observer present been only a little less concerned for his hostess. The butler was a pompous but capable creature, whom Steel had engaged when he bought the place. Though speedily reduced to a more respectful servitude than he was accustomed to, the man had long since ceased to complain of his situation, which carried with it the highest wages and all arbitrary powers over his subordinates. On the steps, at her deferred departure, Mrs. Venables had screamed the secret of his mistress's identity into the butler's ear. The butler had risen with dignity to the occasion, and, after a brief interview, resigned on the spot with all his men. The mild interest was in the present behavior of these gentry, which was a rich blend of dignity and depression, and betrayed a growing doubt as to whether the sinking ship, that they had been so eager to abandon, was really sinking after all.

Certainly the master's manner could not have been very different at the head of his table as originally laid. It was not festive, it was neither unnaturally jocular nor showy in any way, but it was delightfully confident and serene. And the mistress was as calm in her way, though for once hers was the colder way, and it was the opinion of the pantry that she felt more than she showed; without a doubt Mrs. Woodgate had more work to restrain, now her tears for Rachel, and now her consuming indignation with the absentees.

"Your wife feels it as much as mine," said Steel to the vicar, when the gentlemen were alone at last; and one of them could have struck him for the speech, one who had insight and could feel himself.

"I wouldn't go so far as that," the good vicar rejoined. "But Morna feels it dreadfully. Dreadfully she feels it!"

"I almost wish we had kept the table as it was," pursued Steel over his cigar, "and had one of those flash-light photographs taken, as they do at all the twopenny banquets nowadays. All that was left of them--left of six-and-twenty!"

His flippant tone made Langholm writhe, and drove him into the conversation to change its tenor. He asked by whom the evil had come. "Surely not the judge?"

"No," said Steel, with emphasis. "Not that I have it for a fact, but I would put a thousand pounds upon his charity and his discretion in such a matter. A kinder and a sounder man does not exist, though I say it who never met him in my life. But I heard every word of my wife's trial, and I know the way the judge took the case. There were a heap of women witnesses, and her counsel was inclined to bully them; it was delightful to see the fatherly consideration that they received as compensation from the bench."

Langholm's breath was taken away. Here was an end to the likeliest theory that he had evolved that morning among his roses. Steel had not married his wife in ignorance of her life's tragedy; he had been present, and probably fallen in love with her, at her trial! Then why did he never behave as though he were in love? And why must he expatiate upon the judge's kindness to the female witnesses, instead of on the grand result of the trial over which he had presided? Did Steel himself entertain the faintest doubt about the innocence of his wife, whose trial he had heard, and whom he had married thereafter within a few months at the most? Langholm's brain buzzed, even while he listened to what Hugh Woodgate was saying.

"I am not surprised," remarked the vicar. "I remember once hearing that Sir Baldwin Gibson and Lord Edgeware were the two fairest judges on the bench; and why, do you suppose? Because they are both old athletes and Old Blues, trained from small boys to give their opponents every possible chance!"

Steel nodded an understanding assent. Langholm, however, who was better qualified to appreciate the vicar's point, took no notice of it.

"If it was not the judge," said he, "who in the world is it who has sprung this mine, I saw them meet, and as a matter of fact I did guess the truth. But I had special reasons. I had thought, God forgive me, of making something out of your wife's case, Steel, little dreaming it was hers, though I knew it had no ordinary fascination for her. But no one else can have known that."

"You talked it over with her, however?"

And Steel had both black eyes upon the novelist, who made his innocent admission with an embarrassment due entirely to their unnecessarily piercing scrutiny.

"You talked it over with her," repeated Steel, this time in dry statement of fact, "at least on one occasion, in the presence of a lady who had a prior claim upon your conversation. That lady was Mrs. Vinson, and it is she who ought to have a millstone hanged about her neck, and be cast into the sea. Don't look as though you deserved the same fate, Langholm! It would have been better, perhaps, if you had paid more attention to Vinson's wife and less to mine; but she is the last woman in the world to blame you--naturally! And now, if you are ready, we will join them, Woodgate."

Sensitive as all his tribe, and himself both gentle by nature and considerate of others according to his lights, which thoughtlessness might turn down or passion blur, but which burned steadily and brightly in the main, Charles Langholm felt stung to the soul by the last few words, in which Hugh Woodgate noticed nothing amiss. Steel's tone was not openly insulting, but rather that of banter, misplaced perhaps, and in poor taste at such a time, yet ostensibly good-natured and innocent of ulterior meaning. But Langholm was not deceived. There was an ulterior meaning to him, and a very unpleasant one withal. Yet he did not feel unjustifiably insulted; he looked within, and felt justly rebuked; not for anything he had said or done, but for what he found in his heart at that moment. Langholm entered the drawing-room in profound depression, but his state of mind was no longer due to anything that had just been said.

The scene awaiting him was surely calculated to deepen that dejection. Rachel had left the gentlemen with the proud mien and the unbroken spirit which she had maintained at table without trace of effort; they found her sobbing on Morna Woodgate's shoulder, in distress so poignant and so pitiful that even Steel stopped short upon the threshold. In an instant she was on her feet, the tears still thick in her noble eyes, but the spirit once more alight behind the tears.

"Don't go!" she begged them, in a voice that pierced one heart at least. "Stop and help me, for God's sake! I can't bear it. I am not strong enough. I can only pretend to bear it, for an hour, before the servants. Even that has almost maddened me, the effort, and the shame."

"The shame is on others," said Steel, gravely enough now, "and not on you. And who are those others, I should like to know? And what does it matter what they think or say? A hole-and-corner district like this is not the world!"

Rachel shook her head sadly; her beautiful eyes were dry now, and only the more lustrous for the tears that they had shed. Langholm saw nothing else.

"But it is the world," she asserted. "It is part of the world, and the same thing would happen in any other part. It would happen in London, and everywhere else as soon as I became known. And henceforth I mean to be known!" cried Rachel, wilfully; "there shall be no more hiding who I was, or am; that is the way to make them think the worst when they find out. But is it not disgraceful? I was acquitted, and yet I am to be treated as though I had been merely pardoned. Is that not a disgrace to common humanity?"

"Humanity is not so common as you imagine," remarked Steel.

"It is un-Christian!" cried Hugh Woodgate, with many repetitions of the epithet.

Langholm said nothing. His eyes never left Rachel's face. Neither did she meet them for an instant, nor had she a look for Hugh Woodgate or even for his wife. It was to her husband that Rachel had spoken every word; it was nearest him she stood, in his face only that she gazed.

"Are you going to let the disgrace continue?" she asked him, fiercely.

His answer was natural enough.

"My dear Rachel, what can I do? I never dreamt that it would come out here; it is by the merest fluke that it did."

"But I want it to come out," cried Rachel; "if you mean the fact of my trial and my acquittal. It was a mistake ever to hide either for a moment. Henceforth they shall be no secret."

"Then we cannot prevent the world from thinking and saying what it likes, however uncharitable and unjust. Do be reasonable, and listen to reason, though God knows you can be in no mood for such cold comfort! But I have done my best; I will do my best again. I will sell this place to-morrow. We will go right away somewhere else."

"And then the same thing will happen there! Is that all you can suggest, you who married me after hearing with your own ears every scrap of evidence that they could bring against me?"

"Have you anything better to suggest yourself, Rachel?"

"I have," she answered, looking him full and sternly in the face, in the now forgotten presence of their three guests. "Find out who is guilty, if you really want people to believe that I am not!"

Steel did not start, though there came a day when one at least of the listening trio felt honestly persuaded that he had; as a matter of fact, his lips came more closely together, while his eyes searched those of his wife with a wider stare than was often seen in them, but for two or three seconds at most, before dropping in perplexity to the floor.

"How can I, Rachel?" her husband asked quietly, indeed gently, yet with little promise of acquiescence in his tone. "I am not a detective, after all."

But that was added for the sake of adding something, and was enough to prove Steel ill at ease, to the wife who knew him as no man ever had.

"A detective, no!" said she, readily enough. "But you are a rich man; you could employ detectives; you could clear your wife, if you liked."

"Rachel, you know very well that you are cleared already."

"That is your answer, then!" she cried scornfully, and snatched her eyes from him at last, without waiting for a denial. She was done with him, her face said plainly; he looked at her a moment, then turned aside with a shrug.

But Rachel's eyes went swiftly round the room; they alighted for an instant upon Morna Woodgate, leaning forward upon the sofa where they had sat together, eager, enthusiastic, but impotent as a woman must be; they passed over the vicar, looking stolid as usual, and more than a little puzzled; but at last they rested on Langholm's thin, stooping figure, with untidy head thrust forward towards her, and a light in his dreamy eyes that kindled a new light in her own.

"You, Mr. Langholm!" cried Rachel, taking a quick, short step in his direction. "You, with your plots and your problems that nobody can solve; don't you think you could unravel this one for me?"

Her eyes were radiant now, and their radiance all for him. Langholm felt the heart swimming in his body, the brain in his head. A couple of long-legged strides to meet her nine-tenths of the way, and he had taken Rachel's hand before her husband and her friends.

"Before God," said Langholm, "I'll try!"

Their hands met only to part. There was a sardonic laugh from Rachel's husband.

"Do you forbid me?" demanded Langholm, turning upon him.

"Far from it," said Steel. "I shall be most interested to see you go to work."

"Is that a challenge?"

The two men faced each other, while the third man and the women looked on. It had sounded like a challenge to all but the vicar, though neither of the others had had time to think so before they heard the word and recognized its justice.

"If you like," said Steel, indifferently.

"I accept it as such," rejoined Langholm, dogging the other with his eyes. "And find him I will--the guilty man--if I never write another line--and if the villain is still alive!"